Nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact of visiting the Omaha landing beach in northern France. On a sun-drenched August afternoon, it is difficult to reconcile this golden beach, and the happy holidaymakers frolicking in its gently rolling waves, with the horror of the events of June 6th, 1944.
The D-Day landings were pivotal in the liberation of Nazi-occupied north-western Europe in WW2. Codenamed Operation Neptune, the Allied seaborne invasion, involving British, American and Canadian troops, was the largest in history. The 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was split into five assault beaches: Utah & Omaha (USA), Gold, Juno and Sword (UK & Canada). Preceded by an airborne invasion of more than 18,000 paratroopers into northern France, over 132,000 ground troops landed on these beaches. Although the Allies did not immediately achieve their aim of capturing major Normandy cities such as Caen and Bayeux, this assault paved the way for liberating north-western Europe.
However, the Allied victory came at a terrible human cost. It is estimated that there were more than 10,000 Allied casualties with 4,414 confirmed dead; German casualties are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000. Allied casualties were heaviest at Omaha Beach with the Americans coming close to defeat. The defences around the beach’s exits were not knocked out and small groups of survivors penetrated the beach by scaling the cliffs at the least defended points. Although there are no confirmed figures for causalities at Omaha Beach on D-Day, estimates place the number of those killed, wounded or missing at between 2,00 and over 5,000. The Omaha Beach landing is brutally depicted in the opening of Steven Speilberg’s 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan.
Visiting the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach
Today, a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach is home to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Covering 172 acres, it contains the remains of over 9,000 American military dead and is the largest war cemetery in Normandy. Set in a landscaped park, fringed by Corsican pine trees, the graves are marked by gleaming white marble Latin crosses with a sprinkling of Stars of David. Here and there, people have placed a flower to remember the fallen or, in the case of the Jewish dead, a simple stone.
At the eastern end of the cemetery is a semi-circular limestone colonnade with maps and narratives of the military operations displayed in the two loggias at each end. Taking centre stage is a 22-foot tall bronze statue entitled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, facing towards the graves.
There were 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the invasion of Normandy, but whose remains were not located or identified. By way of remembrance, the Walls of the Missing behind the memorial are inscribed with their names.
Near the centre of the cemetery, a circular chapel, constructed from limestone and granite, points towards Omaha Beach. Above the chapel door is an engraved replica of the United States’ Medal of Honor, and its ceiling is adorned with a brightly coloured mosaic.
Near the car park is a small Visitor Center which houses uniform collections, weapons and vehicles from the D-Day invasions. As well as highlighting the significance of the Normandy offensive, it poignantly focuses on the daily lives of soldiers as individuals.
So why should you visit Omaha Beach? I found this visit to the Normandy American Cemetery to be a profoundly moving and humbling experience. The endless sea of crosses are a visible reminder of the bravery of those who sacrificed their young lives for freedom from Fascism, and I couldn’t help but imagine how they might have felt as they landed on those beaches 74 years ago. But I am going to leave the last word to General Eisenhower:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK UPON THE GREAT CRUSADE TOWARD WHICH WE HAVE STRIVEN THESE MANY MONTHS. THE EYES OF THE WORLD ARE UPON YOU…I HAVE FULL CONFIDENCE IN YOUR COURAGE, DEVOTION TO DUTY AND SKILL IN BATTLE.
— GEN. DWIGHT EISENHOWER,
Message to the troops sent just prior to the invasion of Normandy
How to do it
- The Normandy American Cemetery is located at Colleville-sur-Mer. It is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (closing at 6 pm from mid-April to mid-September). Admission is free.
- There is no public transport available and it is best reached by car. Follow the coastal road between Arromanches / Longues-sur-Mer / Bayeux and Vierville-sur-Mer / Pointe du Hoc. Turn off at the new large Overlord Museum (with tanks on display next to the main road). Ample free parking is available.
- Alternatively, base yourself in Bayeaux, which is three hours by train from Paris, and take a taxi or tour from here.
- I strongly recommend arriving either when the cemetery opens at 9 am or towards the end of the day to hear the playing of The Last Post as the flags are lowered.
- To learn more about the Normandy American Cemetery and the D-Day Landings, check out the guide produced by the American Battle Monuments Commission
Have you been moved by a cemetery that you have visited? Please share your experience by leaving a comment below.
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